Learning a fugue can be highly rewarding but also frustrating and time-consuming. The good news is that there are systematic ways to approach learning complex, contrapuntal music that can make it absorbing, gratifying and less daunting.
The Step-ladder Approach
While you’re probably aware and make use of hands separate practising, this is not all that useful for a fugue given that each hand might feature multiple voices (or parts thereof) at any time. Rather than practising a fugue hands separately, it makes more sense to approach it strands separately – learning each voice on it’s own with the fingering and articulation you will end up using when performing.
Once you’ve learnt each of the voices on it’s own, you can then start to combine two at a time e.g. Soprano and Alto, Alto and Bass, and Soprano and Bass for a three part fugue. When you do this, be sure to do it extraordinarily slowly at first with utmost concentration! You will need to start working in small sections, perhaps just a few bars at a time to begin with.
The last step after combining pairs of voices is to practise all the voices together. For a fugue with three voices, the complete process looks like this (Soprano = S; Alto = A; Bass = B):
STEP 1 > S; A; B;
STEP 2 > SA; SB; AB;
STEP 3 > SAB
After you have gone through this process, it may be of value to practise with each hand separately. However, because the middle voices are often shared between the two hands, the musical result will be strange and less than satisfactory.
A four-voice fugue has more combinations (T = Tenor): SA, ST, SB, AT, AB, TB, SAT, SAB, ATB, SATB.
In this video, I demonstrate the step-ladder process in detail using the Fugue section of the Toccata from Bach’s Partita No. 6 in E Minor (this video is from a collection of resources that will soon be published for this work – click here to sign-up to our mailing list for notifications!):
Our second London Piano Course takes place on Saturday 22nd October and follows a similar format to our first event in September, but with a focus on Baroque music. In this day of workshops and presentations, Graham Fitch shows how repertoire from this period can be played stylistically and expressively on the piano.
Ticket options & prices
In-person tickets – Join us in-person as an observer (£125) or performer (£175) for the full day. This includes access to all sessions, refreshments, a light lunch and recordings after the event. Performer tickets also include a 30-minute performance or feedback slot in the performance workshop. Click here to book your place!
Online Tickets – If you can’t make it to London, you can still join us online for the day and obtain access to the recordings for the event afterwards. Tickets for the full day cost £80 (£48 for Online Academy subscribers) and can be purchased here.
Other Practice Tools
- Bar by bar – Avoid overloading the working memory by learning a bar a a time, repeating two to three times mindfully to create a habit (click here for more suggestions on using bar by bar practice).
- Slow practice – Already mentioned with the stepladder above, super slow practice with intense concentration is invaluable throughout the learning process. You might even want to use your metronome by retaining the tempo / value but changing the note durations e.g. quaver becomes a crotchet or minim (therefore halving or even quartering the speed).
- Voicing – Play through the section as many times as there are voices, each time bringing out an assigned voice and putting the others in the background. In other words, play one voice forte, the others piano. This is incredibly useful for developing independence and the ability emphasise lines at will.
- Miming – For more advanced players, it is great practice to mime one voice while playing the others out (touching the surface of the keys, or partially depressing the keys without sounding the notes). Again, exhaust the possibilities!
- Singing – Especially difficult but worth trying: omit one voice, and instead of playing it, sing it (while playing the other voices).
The following are some further resources and links on learning fugues:
- Study Edition (Prelude and Fugue in C minor, BWV 847) – Click here to purchase our study edition featuring video demonstrations and versions of the score with individual voices and combinations thereof for applying the step ladder.
- Open Scores – Click here to download open scores for each of the fugues from the Well Tempered Klavier
- Step into “The 48” – Click here to view our recently launched series in which Beate Toyka provides a guide to JS Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier starting with the easier works and ending with the most difficult.
Lastly, for a more detailed demonstration of these and other practice tools, you might want to join me for my presentation on learning fugues on 22nd October. This session is part of a full day of events devoted to playing Baroque music on the piano. In addition to learning fugues, I’ll be giving presentations on various aspects of interpreting and performing music from this period, including articulation, ornamentation and tone. Click here to find out more!